Grateful Dead in 10 Songs

A crash course in one of the most eclectic and beloved bands in rock and roll history

grateful dead shakedown stream youtube concert series
Grateful Dead circa 1978, photo via DeadVids on Vimeo

Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

Over the past five decades, the Grateful Dead have given birth to a unique and instantly identifiable subculture. How many musicians can say the same? Garbed in flowing tie-dyed T-shirts and shawls, the Deadhead army patrols our nation’s grassy knolls and head shops, spreading mellow vibes and pungent aromas. Their internet archive makes available nearly 9,000 (!) past performances for your immediate enjoyment, and the term “Deadhead” is even in the Oxford English Dictionary.

grateful dead illo bb2 2015 billboard 650 Grateful Dead in 10 SongsPerhaps it’s precisely because of the mass cultural movement surrounding the Grateful Dead that the band’s musical significance sometimes gets overlooked. It’s easy to dismiss The Dead as a bunch of stoned-out Flower Power hippies whose contributions are more social than musical, but that would be a huge mistake.

For starters, The Dead were a remarkably diverse and eclectic band, drawing on American roots tunes, British Isle ballads, Harry Smith’s folk anthology, free-form jazz, rockabilly, country, and delta blues. Lyrically, Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia culled literary influences from James Joyce to Persian philosopher-poet Omar Khayyám for source material. And their stamina was utterly stupefying, playing gigs that lasted four, five, even six hours night after night, year after year.

Abstracting more than 30 years of brilliance into less than a dozen songs is a fool’s errand. But even thousand-mile journeys begin with a single step, so here’s 10 tracks to usher you across the River Styx and into the land of The Dead.

–Henry Hauser
Staff Writer

Jerry’s Jauntiest

Songs: “China Cat Sunflower” at Old Renaissance Faire Grounds (August 27th, 1972)

Sandwiched between references to an iconoclastic comic strip (“Krazy Kat peeking through a lace bandanna”), Leo da Vinci (“crying Leonardo’s words”), and the Buddhist concept of supernal understanding (“copper-dome Bodhi”), “China Cat Sunflower” has Jerry Garcia laying in some of the crispest, sweetest riffs ever concocted. Paired perfectly with his lazy vocal drawl, he channels the calming sense of wellbeing one enjoys while gazing up at an unblemished blue sky or contemplating the cadence of golden straw blowing in the breeze. Anchored by a sublime, naturalistic euphoria straight out of a Wordsworth poem, it’s a hedonistic tune that’s wholly preoccupied with the naked enjoyment of taking in those warming, healing sunbeams. As the track unfolds, life’s worries fade away, gently nudged into the background by Garcia’s rollicking licks, Bob Weir’s steady rhythm guitar, and Phil Lesh’s bobbing bass. Performed at over 500 live shows alongside its companion piece, “I Know You Rider”, The Dead typically tapped “China Cat Sunflower” to kick off their second set. Here, beneath the blazing Oregon summer sun, topless longhairs sway to the beat as they bronze their shoulders and flirt with heatstroke. —Henry Hauser

Night at the Improv

Songs: “Dark Star” at Fillmore West Auditorium (February 27th, 1969)

Some songs just aren’t meant to be confined to the contours of a record. Take “Dark Star”, the quintessential springboard for countless improvisational jams. Initially released as a single back in ‘68, the track “sank like a stone,” selling just 500 copies. But while the single ran for a paltry 2:40, it wasn’t uncommon for live renditions to clock in at 30 minutes or more.

With this added space, the Dead incorporated elements of free-form jazz, psychedelic rock, and some seriously heady Garcia guitar solos. After leaning heavily on “Dark Star” throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, the song became a rarity at Dead shows, with Deadheads referring to the lengthy track as their Holy Grail or, more simply, “IT.” At 22 minutes, their 2/27/69 Fillmore West performance isn’t even close to the longest version of “Dark Star” (that honor belongs to the 48-minute Rotterdam rendition), but it achieves a perfect fusion of spontaneity, experimentation, and transcendence without sliding down the slippery slope of of excess. Lesh’s bass lines are pure jazz, while Jerry sounds focused and engaged as he whispers Hunter’s trippy lyrics, “Mirror shatters/ In formless reflections of matter.” –Henry Hauser

Studio Stud

Songs: “Casey Jones” from Workingman’s Dead (1970)

The Grateful Dead’s legacy is build on the bedrock of their legendary live performances, but it would be remiss to ignore their studio output. With over a dozen studio LPs, the Dead scored five Gold and five Platinum certifications between ‘69 and ‘89, showcasing a tighter, more refined side of the band. 1970’s Workingman’s Dead, their first to go platinum, featured some of the Dead’s most popular and polished tunes, including closing cut “Casey Jones”. Co-written by Robert Hunter (lyrics) and Jerry Garcia (music), the chill county-rock ditty chronicles a strung-out train conductor speeding down the wrong track at 102 MPH. Yet, despite the foreboding “trouble ahead/ trouble behind,” the band seems blithe and carefree. Jerry sounds downright drowsy, while the rest of the band plays slow and steady. This nonchalance in the face of certain death (“Come round the bend/ You know it’s the end”) is the epitome of ‘60s mellow. The world could be crumbling before our eyes, but there’s no reason to get all uptight about it. And the Dead certainly practiced what they preached. Altamont, Nixon, Nam, thieving managers, you name it: The Grateful Dead weathered the storms of the ’60s and ’70s without becoming bitter or violent. Nothing could kill their buzz. —Henry Hauser

Not Quite Christian Rock

Songs: “St. Stephen” / “Not Fade Away” at Barton Hall, Cornell University (May 7th, 1977)

At first glance, Saint Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, might seem like an an odd subject for a Grateful Dead song. But dig a little deeper, and sure enough, there’s a connection. Stephen was stoned to death, while the Grateful Dead (and their fans) were mostly stoned in life. During the Dead’s iconic Cornell University show, the band interspersed “St. Stephen” with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”, segueing seamlessly between the two disparate cuts. It’s an unorthodox coupling of psychedelic folk and rockabilly, but it works just as well as sea salt and dark chocolate. Right from Garcia’s opening riff, delighted Deadheads hoot and holler. Even the bootleg recording revealed a palpable connection between audience and artist. The mid-song jam has the band firing on all cylinders, playing fast, taking risks, and pushing each other’s limits. In a 2013 New York Times poll, the Cornell gig was voted greatest of all Grateful Dead shows, thanks in no small part to this sensational suite. –Henry Hauser

Love in the Time of Psychedelia

Songs: “Scarlet Begonias” / “Fire on the Mountain” at Barton Hall, Cornell University (May 8th, 1977)

What is love in a world where nothing is as it seems? “Scarlet Begonias” begins with a minute observation familiar to all: a romantic vision at the edges of perception. As the song progresses, the narrator navigates questions of illusion and idealized romanticism. When the song concludes, the scope has expanded to include the universe, and one final truth is shared: “Everybody’s playing in the Heart of Gold band.”

It’s a journey that has warmed the hearts and, no doubt, soundtracked the highs and lows of love for countless Grateful Dead fans. “Scarlet Begonias” debuted in 1974 and subsequently appeared on Mars Hotel. In live performance, it was often paired with “Fire on the Mountain”, forming an often 30-plus-minute run of the Dead at their finest. “Begonias” stands as a fan favorite and essential part of the band’s catalog for its unique combination of uptempo swing and easy to sing (and love) lyrics that echo universal sentiment, but remain vague enough to let every listener develop a personal connection. The ultimate message suggests that we can’t lament lost opportunities, but instead celebrate the potential around us every day. Hell, the song says it best: “It seldom turns out the way it does in the song/ Once in a while you get shown the light/ In the strangest of places if you look at it right.” —Kris Lenz

Robert Hunter: Poet, Prophet, Historian

Song: “Franklin’s Tower” at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium (May 9th, 1977)

Borrowing heavily from classic American songwriting and storytelling traditions, Robert Hunter’s assembled collaborations with the Grateful Dead operate as a sort of alternative history of America. According to Hunter, the United States was forged out of a primeval paradise into the lawless but bountiful land we know by a cast of rogues and thieves, heroes and lovers, and the poor souls who got in their way. Hunter’s masterful lyricism and gift for historical stage-setting has no better expression than on Blues for Allah standout “Franklin’s Tower”.

Written with Jerry Garcia and Bill Kreutzman, “Franklin’s Tower” arrives as the knock-out punch of the triptych “Help on the Way” and “Slipknot”. Riding on a sublime wave of some of Garcia’s most exquisite electric guitar work, the song tells the story of Ben Franklin forging the liberty bell. Well, sorta. It also invokes personal narrative, ancient Greek symbolism and so much more. The song’s incredibly complex lyrics launched a bit of a debate, as various writers discussed the song’s meaning before Hunter finally stepped in himself and offered his own exegesis of “Franklin’s Tower”. Let’s just say the sound of a mic drop echoed across history itself. –Kris Lenz

Jerry Brings the Funk

Song: “Shakedown Street” at San Francisco Civic Auditorium (December 31st, 1984)

It should come as no surprise that the 1970s funk and disco moment would find expression in the Grateful Dead’s catalog. It is testament to the band’s taste and skill that their crossover moment isn’t embarrassing, but actually kills. On the surface, “Shakedown Street” layers funky guitar grooves over metronomic disco beats, soundtracking countless hippie dance parties. But buried within the funk, a lesson remains. The song begins as a lamentation of days gone by. When “nothing is shaking on Shakedown Street,” the good times are gone and the song stands as a memento of a lost golden age. When Garcia sings, “Maybe the dark is from your eyes/ You know you’ve got such dark eyes,” the script is flipped. The emptiness is not in Shakedown Street, but instead comes from a personal failure.

The solution, like the absence, comes from within and is solved by altering one’s perspective: “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart/ Just gotta poke around.” Many fans have interpreted the lyrics as Hunter’s response to fans who criticized the new, more popular Dead of the 1970s. Like all great and enduring truths, that message remains powerful, and funky, to this day. –Kris Lenz

America’s Band Wants YOU

Song: “Uncle John’s Band” at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA (November 17th, 1973)

What elevates the best Grateful Dead songs is the ability to mix good times and life lessons without one ruining the other. Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, in particular, were a uniquely gifted combination. Hunter’s stunning lyrics are littered with aphorisms, historical easter eggs, and off-hand observations that ring true with an almost childlike innocence. Garcia provided the unforgettable melodies that made such lessons go down smooth, almost unnoticed. In “Uncle John’s Band”, Hunter’s lyrics tell a wide-ranging story, capturing snapshots of turn-of-the-century American life and sprinkling in historical details and Native American mythology, all tied with the universal presence of “Uncle John’s Band”. Jerry’s contribution is the sweet melody and high, true harmonies that made this opener of Workingman’s Dead a concert staple and fan favorite. This rendition positions “Uncle John’s Band” at the center of a medley that begins and ends with “Playin in the Band”, making it clear that all are welcome to sing along with Uncle John’s band. —Kris Lenz

The Dream Lives

Song: “Sugar Magnolia” at Old Renaissance Faire Grounds (August 27th, 1972)

At the center of the hippie worldview is the hope of an edenic paradise where all share equally in the bounty of nature, love, and opportunities to have “high times.” “Sugar Magnolia” is the sweet musical manifestation of this dream. No dark alternate history or potential for violence haunts this track co-written by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir. Pure as the rays of sunshine she dances in and around, “Sugar Magnolia” follows a lover’s starry-eyed gaze as he drinks in his counterpart. The titular lady is no pushover as ”she don’t come and I don’t follow” and fully capable when she “takes the wheel when I’m seeing double.” Her presence is energy and joy. She is the dream girl, a “summer lover in spring, fall, and winter.” All dreams come to an end, and while maybe we’ll never meet our own Sugar Magnolia, the ideal is preserved within the song forever. —Kris Lenz

Murder in Paradise

Song: “Jackstraw” / “Deal” at Nassau Coliseum (January 11th, 1979)

In Grateful Dead songs, the American West is a paradise rich with opportunity, but there always looms a simmering potential for violence. The same sources of pleasure, including women, wine, and money, are also the roots of downfall. The Hunter and Weir-penned “Jackstraw” tells the story of two ne’er-do-wells riding the rails across the West. Within their shared poverty is also a sense of community: “We can share what we got of yours because we done shared all of mine.” But when things get tough, violence is never far behind, and a once-peaceful union ends in bloodshed.

The lyrics are purposefully vague, hinging around the line “Jackstraw from Wichita cut his buddy down/ Dug for him a shallow grave and laid his body down.” Some hear Jackstraw killing his friend. Others believe “Shannon” was hanged, and Jackstraw gave him proper burial before setting out for revenge. Either way, tales of cold-blooded murder have never been so lovely. Weir’s melody is among the sweetest in the Dead repetoire, and live performances feature excellent harmonies between Weir, Garcia, and various other band members depending on the year. This version maintains the slow, early tempo, letting the song unfold into its emotional peak and jam out. —Kris Lenz